NYC: new regs in Critical Mass crackdown

Another turn of the screw. The NYPD unveils draconian new regulations in the ongoing crackdown on the Critical Mass bicyclists. The elitist New York Timess refuses to put this fine July 21 column by Clyde Haberman online for free, but we present it here in the interests of free speech and open discourse:

Ever on Guard to Control Scary Parades
One of New York’s greater glories is its talent for finding molehills and turning them into mountains. It led this week to a proposed set of police regulations with civil liberties implications.

In case you were distracted by little things like the Middle East crisis and the stem-cell debate, the Police Department announced new rules controlling marches and parades, be they on foot or on wheels. The rules won’t become final until after a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 23 (when many New Yorkers are certain to be away). But is sounds as if minds at police headquaters are made up.

Here’s the new drill:

Bicyclists traveling in groups of 20 or more must first get a parade permit from the police. The same goes for groups of 35 or more people walking together on sidewalks. For that matter, a group of merely two people — that’s right, two people — will be defined as a parade if they walk or cycle “in a manner that does not comply with all applicable traffic laws, rules and regulations.”

Be honest. Have you never, while strolling or biking with a companion, crossed the street against a red light? Have you never, while strolling or biking with a companion, crossed the street against a red light? It would seem that the two of you will now, technically speaking, qualify as a parade. And since you probably will not have first asked the police for a parade permit, it appears that you will — again technically — be breaking two laws.

What happened here is that a molehill became a mountain.

A group bicycle ride known as Critical Mass is held in Manhattan on the last Friday of every month. This event, encouraged by an environmental group called Time’s Up, went on for years with no one paying much attention. Then the Republicans came to town in 2004. The bike ride on the eve of their convention was huge. Things got unruly, and 264 people were arrested.

After that, the atmosphere between the police and Time’s Up became poisonous, with each side accusing the other of bad faith. The police harass them and provoke clashes, the riders say. The riders block traffic and look for trouble, the police say. Each side probably has a point.

Five months ago, a State Supreme Court justice, Michael D. Stallman, rejected the Police Department’s attempts to rein in Critical Mass with rules that he called ill-defined. Almost plaintively, Justice Stallman urged both sides to exercise “pateince, mutual respect and restraint,” and in effect return that mountain to a molehill.

Now we have the new regulations–tailored, the police say, to the judge’s complaint about vagueness. They do not, however, bring the molehill back.

Civil libertarians call the revisions a frontal assault on free speech. “Overkill,” the civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel said yesterday. Protesters, Mr. Siegel said, “will now need governmental permission to exercise their First Amendment rights.” Similar objections came from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Questions are unavoidable. What if 35 people, outraged by events in the Middle East, decide suddenly to march on the sidewalk to the United Nations? This is hardly an unimaginable event. The new regulations, strictly read, say they must first get a parade permit.

“Let us remember that part of the right to protest is the right to spontaneously ptotest,” said City Councilman Alan Jay Gerson of Manhatan. Besides, Mr. Gerson said, it should be up to the Council, not the police, to change the rules governing free speech. Indeed, the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said in a statement that “these proposals raise significant questions that we are examining carefully.”

Practical considerations also come to mind. Will 20 people on a routine bike tour have to get a parade permit? How about 35 kids walking as a group on a class trip? Or a funeral procession?

Paul J. Browne, a Police Department spokesman, dismissed all this as “grasping at unrealistic scenarios.” Still, some will wonder if the rules are to be unifromly enforced, or applied mainly to groups deemed nettlesome, like Time’s Up. The question is part of a broader issue that New Yorkers have faced since 9/11: How do we balance the demands of security and order with our tradition of openness and free expression?

One whimsical answer was offered yesterday by Steve Stollman, a biking advocate who wore a button designed for anyone planning to walk or ride in a group. The button had an arrow pointing in opposite directions. “Please don’t arrest me,” it said. “I’m not with him.”

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly responds in the populist but reactionary New York Post, also July 21. His Orwellian comments, in contrast, are free for the whole world to view on the Internet:


Once again, the usual critics are charging the NYPD with undermining free speech – and, once again, the facts say otherwise.

The charges center on the department’s recent clarification of its rules on protests, marches and parades – clarifications suggested by Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Stallman.

The NYPD had sought a restraining order to prevent reckless mass bike-rides that jeopardize public safety. The judge told us that the department’s rules were vague and recommended that we be more specific in defining what constituted a parade or a march. “For many reasons,” wrote Justice Stallman, “it would be sensible . . . to develop and promulgate criteria for what constitutes a parade or procession, as a function of its size.”

So we did. Where the rules didn’t specify numbers, the amended version now stipulates that groups of 35 or more would require a permit for a march along a sidewalk. Groups of 20 or more using bicycles, or other vehicles, would require a permit. Smaller groups obeying traffic regulations would not.

None of the clarifications in any way impinge on free speech or the message behind a march, parade, or protest. They impose no new penalties or punishments, and are in complete conformity with the conceptual framework of existing law. In short, the NYPD is simply providing the clarity to its regulations that the courts indicated was lacking.

The “bicycle protests” that triggered all this had become a real public-safety problem. In years past, these consisted of cyclists who stopped for lights and otherwise observed traffic regulations, riding in groups in Manhattan to advocate alternatives to cars or for the sheer fun of it. In many instances, organizers would advise the police in advance of the routes they planned to take. But, beginning a few months before the 2004 Republican National Convention, the rides were hijacked by those apparently intent on commandeering the streets for themselves.

Participants took it upon themselves to block crosstown streets so they could run lights and have the avenues for bikes alone. They posed grave risks, not only to the sick and injured waiting for an ambulance to arrive, but to others. A news helicopter captured the image of one of the cyclist “corkers” punching a motorist who had sought to breach an ersatz blockade.

The Police Department’s permit process effectively allows activities that would otherwise be illegal – such as disregarding traffic signals or blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic – to go forward, with the police making accommodations such as rerouting traffic. The NYPD’s standing offer to work with groups to accommodate these rides has been refused.

Every day, the department performs the great juggling act of accommodating street fairs, protests, parades and performances of one sort or another – while also safeguarding the participants and the public, and without letting the rest of the city grind to a halt.

That means that, when a demonstration fills blocks of the East Side of Manhattan, we make sure the radioactive isotopes or human organs that medical centers in the vicinity need still arrive on time. It also means we provide emergency lanes for ambulances or fire trucks that might otherwise be delayed in the added congestion that such events inevitably cause. (Similarly, the police accommodate sidewalk pickets while allowing everyone else to get to their apartment buildings, hotels, or places or work.)

This give-and-take proceeds daily without incident in the vast majority of cases. Last year, the NYPD assigned special police details to accommodate over a thousand of such events below 59th Street alone.

By responding to the courts’ concerns about specificity, the department clarified the rules on parade permits without undermining, in any way, the public’s right to voice dissent or any other opinion.

See our last post on the Critical Mass struggle.